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California Supreme Court Finds Evidence of Industry Custom and Practice May be Admissible in Strict Liability Actions Under Limited Circumstances

August 28, 2018

Kim v. Toyota Motor Corporation (Aug. 27, 2018, S232754) ___ Cal.5th ____

In Kim v. Toyota Motor Corporation, plaintiff was severely injured after he lost control of his Toyota Tundra pickup truck and drove off an embankment. He sued defendant Toyota Motor Corporation ("Toyota") for strict products liability claiming that the truck was defective in its design because a particular safety feature, known as vehicle stability control ("VSC"), was not standard on the truck. Plaintiff claimed that this specific feature would have prevented the accident. At trial, the jury heard evidence that no vehicle manufacturer at the time included VSC as standard equipment in pickup trucks. The jury found in favor of Toyota and plaintiff appealed.

At the outset, the California Supreme Court reiterated that, although industry custom and practice evidence may not be admissible to show that a manufacturer acted reasonably in adopting a challenged design; thus, cannot be held liable under strict products liability law, this evidence may nonetheless be relevant and admissible under limited circumstances or depending on the purpose for which the evidence is offered. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that evidence of industry custom and practice may be relevant to the strict products liability analysis, such as "the jury's evaluation of whether the product is as safely designed as it should be, considering the feasibility and cost of alternative designs." Thus, "evidence of other manufacturers' design decisions" may help the jury understand the complexities and trade-offs of a particular design inherent in product design decisions and "may provide some assistance in determining whether the manufacturer has balanced the relevant considerations correctly."

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court expressly disapproved several Court of Appeal opinions that decided that such evidence is always irrelevant and inadmissible to the risk-benefit analysis in design defect cases.

 

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